People who ask too many questions have a habit of paying for their inquisitiveness with bruises and broken bones. Or worse. That seems especially true in crime and mystery fiction, where protagonists often sustain injuries far more numerous and serious than those of us in the real world might be willing to endure. Just consider these two covers as cautions against being too nosy in the presence of suspects or lawbreakers. Likewise the paperbacks showcased above.
The first novel façade under consideration--from the 1953 Dell Books edition of The Big Fist, by Clyde B. Ragsdale--was painted by Carl Bobertz (1899-1974), whose résumé also included fronts for paperbacks by Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Helen Nielsen, Frank Kane, A.A. Fair (aka Erle Stanley Gardner), and others. (You can enjoy more of Bobertz’s covers here.) It provides a rather, uh, punchy introduction to a tale that a review in Ohio’s Toledo Blade said “exemplifies a novel written in the undergrowth of the jungle of American life in a chaotic era.” That critique, by Robert A. Brainerd, appeared in print on July 16, 1950, and goes on to explain that The Big Fist focuses around Hosy Whittle, a guy who follows his father’s simple philosophy (“A good pair of dukes is a man’s best friend. You can’t go wrong with a good fist to back you up.”) as he
stomps boldly and mercilessly through a life of murder and cruelty, against law and against men who become obstacles along the way to Easy Street. Easy Street is the dominating and propelling force of Hosy Whittle’s existence. … From an Oklahoma city, to the oil lands of Texas, to the cotton fields of Southern California, Hosy Whittle bootlegs in the days of the Volstead Act and lives the way of “the big fist.” His aliases are changes of name only.Pulp International has more to say about the author’s history:
The steel and muscle of the boom in a Texas oil town, uncertain and shadily flamboyant, provides Hosy Whittle with a setting that heightens the drama of his character. Those elements in other men that are similar to his own, he can understand. Battles are won for him by preying on the weaknesses of his opponents and forcing their like strengths into physical combat. … Hosy Whittle’s saga of big fists and Easy Street unwinds in the manner of the ballad, a ballad of rambling proportion, of many climaxes, of erratic pitch.
“The Big Fist” is the kind of novel a reader would expect of Clyde Ragsdale, once he is familiar with his background of riding freights and sleeping in grain fields through the boom and bust of the ’20s and ’30s.
Ragsdale was editor of the Texas City Sun newspaper. He took a disliking to the gambling dens that had sprung up around Galveston County, because, in his view, tolerance for gambling would soon lead to prostitution, drugs, and worse. So he published editorials, had reporters write stories on the evils of gambling, publicly questioned the sheriff’s abilities, and even once led Texas Rangers to a hidden cache of 320 slot machines. To our knowledge, he was never beaten up in front of his girl like the unlucky fella on the cover of 1950’s The Big Fist, but he was targeted by threats serious enough to finally convince him to stick to writing.Now let’s switch our focus to the second of today’s highlighted book fronts, from the 1960 Pocket edition of The Big Blackout, by Don Tracy (originally released in hardcover a year before that). An online biography of Tracy (1905-1976) explains that the author’s first novel, Round Trip (1934) “was an unblinking and unflattering look at a tough reporter, a drunkard whose vices leave him in the gutter more often than not,” but it was Tracy’s second work of fiction, Criss-Cross, that earned him special recognition--and even comparisons to James M. Cain. (Criss-Cross later became the basis of Burt Lancaster’s 1949 film noir of the same name.) August West, writing in Vintage Hardboiled Reads, offers these remarks about the plot of The Big Blackout, which he calls a “well-written and sharp” novel:
The story is about Johnny Thompson, who struggles to earn a decent buck during the 1930s Depression era. Right now he’s an ex-boxer with a flat nose working as an armored car delivery guard. His biggest problem is coming up with enough cash to take out the girl he is obsessed with, Anna. Anna loves money and the cushion[ed] life it brings. Johnny can’t compete with Slim, an acquaintance of his who has plenty of dough usually obtained by shady dealings. Anna ends up marrying Slim for his money, which tears the guts out of Johnny. But the trio continues a “friendly” relationship, and Slim takes a liking to Johnny. Eventually Anna and Johnny play around behind Slim’s back. Johnny knows he is being used by Anna, but he doesn’t care just as long he can spend time with her. Slim offers Johnny a chance to make some big money, by being the inside man in robbing a payroll carried by his delivery truck. Johnny takes the offer and it changes his life, and the lives of Anna and Slim, forever.Credit for the artwork on this edition of The Big Blackout goes to Robert K. Abbett, whose efforts have been noted several times before on this page. Tracy’s yarn was adapted (very loosely) in 1960 as an episode of Thriller, Boris Karloff’s anthology TV series.
Don Tracy went on to compose a variety of other novels, including a nine-book series starring Giff Speer, “a master sergeant and undercover agent in the U.S. Army Military Police.” Among the Speer installments is the engagingly titled Naked She Died, which was featured in Killer Covers’ fifth-anniversary celebration.